THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST ( YEAR C )
THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY ( YEAR C )
1 Kings 19:1-15a
If you want to see a good film about demon possession then “The Exorcist” is the one you should go for. It’s a scary film, not nice in places but it is very well researched. The writer, William Peter Blatty, researched the subject thoroughly and the director even employed a Roman Catholic priest as an advisor during the making of the film. It’s based on what a lot of Christians believe about demons and demon possession. It is Biblically based. The plot is, at least loosely, based on the story in today’s Gospel reading. At the end of the film the priest, who has been attending the exorcism of a young girl, rids the girl of her demons by tricking the demons into possessing him instead, whereupon he throws himself down a flight of steps, bringing to mind, of course, the herd of pigs throwing themselves down the bank into the lake.
But “The Exorcist” is a film. It’s a fantasy.
The question as to whether or not demons actually exist is a controversial one. Some Christians are convinced they do, whilst others see such beliefs as superstitious nonsense. I think we can say that Jesus definitely believed in the existence of demons, but Jesus, the God who became human, was a man of his time, he lived within the context of the culture in to which he had been born.
Was the man in tonight’s reading possessed by demons? I would have to say, probably not. You see, there are many examples of demon possession in the Bible and even more in the non canonical writings of the early Christians. There would appear to have been demons everywhere. If they were so common then, where are they now? We just do not come across demon possessed people in such numbers anymore. I would suggest to you that demon possession was in fact the explanation by the people of the time for certain forms of chronic mental illness. This suggestion is given credence by the fact that mental illness is not mentioned specifically in the Bible under its correct diagnosis.
Speaking from experience I can tell you that there are similarities between the symptoms of mental illness and the symptoms of the demoniacs of the Bible. For a start suffering from mental illness feels like you are possessed by something alien to yourself. Our sense of self, our understanding of who we are, is based on what we think, our thoughts, our memories. When we are mentally ill our thoughts change, we believe things to be true that are not true, we can’t control our thoughts. Our thoughts can become very loud and all consuming. It is like somebody else is inside our head. People we know, people we live with, will tell us that we are not the person they once knew.
The demoniac in our reading is probably a schizophrenic and his behaviour would have frightened the people who came in contact with him. Because of this he has been ejected from the community and he now lives among the tombs. Things have not changed much. I have worked with homeless people and I can say that a large proportion of the homeless suffer from mental illness. Once they were looked after in institutions but since the advent of care in the community more and more have been left to fend for themselves and so more and more have ended up on the streets.
Madness is still a taboo subject. Like the man in today’s reading the mad are excluded from society, they are seen as an embarrassment, as a problem, as potential psychopaths. Even the Church is guilty of discrimination. Mental illness is the only illness that is a bar to ordination. The Church is scared stiff that those who have suffered from mental health problems might cause a scandal. As I was recovering from a serious bout of depression I was asked to retire by my Archdeacon. There was no understanding of the fact that a person who has been through the dark night of the soul that is mental illness could have a ministry that is informed by the experience. I did not retire but fearful church leaders eventually got their way. I have been unemployed for six years now because of my medical history even though I have not had a work-affecting bout of mental illness for over fifteen years.
Those considered mad are outsiders. They are today and they were in Jesus’ time. The man in our reading was an outsider in two respects. Firstly, he was ill. Secondly he was most probably a gentile because there would not have been a herd of pigs in a Jewish settlement. The man was completely outside of society, shunned with more vehemence than a leper. He was in mental anguish, he was living like an animal, he was without hope.
Into this situation comes Jesus and he cures the man and he gives him peace of mind.
On one level this is just another account of a miraculous healing. But, as I emphasised in a sermon a few weeks ago, the actions of Christ are more than actions, they are enacted parables which contain the teachings of Christ just as much, if not more, than his words do. The demoniac was a real person, an individual, with a real problem which was got rid of by Jesus. But he is also everyman. He represents us all. We are all possessed by demons. We are possessed by sin, by guilt, by feelings of hatred and anger, by depression, by jealousy and all sorts of negative stuff. We live among the tombs. We are naked but we do not realise it.
Only Jesus can offer us a release from these demons that possess us. He offers us salvation, he offers us freedom, he offers us a new life within the new world that is to come where we will be accepted and not rejected. It does not matter if we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, black or white, mad or sane. All are welcome in the Kingdom of God. It is a shame that the Church does not offer the same welcome to the outsiders of our present world. In fact, in being as bigoted as the world at large they bring more scandal on themselves and on God’s name than anything an included outcast might do because their excluding attitude is completely the opposite of that of Jesus Christ, the God who was himself rejected by many but who persistently welcomes all.